PokerStars Big 20 – 2018: The year of platinum hunting

PokerStars is celebrating its 20th Anniversary: 20 years as the best known and most trusted online poker site. To join the celebrations here at PokerStars Blog, we are looking back year-by-year on those two decades, noting the landmarks and remembering all the remarkable moments, fitting them into the wider landscape of poker’s sensational development.

Today we look back on 2018, the 12 months that followed a dramatic announcement in Prague that there would be a poker tournament like no other in The Bahamas next January. Poker players across the world spent 2018 hunting for Platinum Passes, and a trip to the PSPC.


THE ANNOUNCEMENT

“Greetings to you, the lucky finder of this Golden Ticket, from Mr Willy Wonka! … Tremendous things are in store for you!” — Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Roald Dahl

The tournament room grew dark and all eyes shifted to the big screen where a spotlight flashed across an intriguing new logo. In the centre was the silhouette of a man, both arms raised in evident celebration, and a large white star on his chest. The words around him read: “POKERSTARS PLAYERS NL HOLD’EM CHAMPIONSHIP” in striking, capital letters. A song began to play, with enticing lyrics. “Welcome to a new dawn…”

It was December 2017 and we were in Prague, in the familiar, busy tournament room of what was, at the time, known as the PokerStars Championship. But something much fresher was brewing. “A POKER TOURNAMENT IS THE ULTIMATE PLAYER COMPETITION,” read the next words on the screen. “WHAT IF IT COULD BE MORE?”

PokerStars is nothing if not bold in announcing its latest promotions, but this one took everything to an even higher level than normal. The Main Event had just burst its bubble, but all tournament activity was paused and the legend on the screen now promised “THE ULTIMATE PLAYER EXPERIENCE” and “THE BIGGEST $25,000 BUY-IN EVENT IN HISTORY”, with “$8,000,000 TO BE CONTRIBUTED TO THE PRIZEPOOL” and “AN EXTRA $1,000,000 ADDED TO FIRST PLACE”.

It was the start of the biggest promotion poker had ever seen.

As if from nowhere, Daniel Negreanu emerged. Negreanu, at that point the leading light of Team PokerStars Pro, had opted to skip EPT Prague, so his sudden appearance underlined the belief that this was out of the ordinary. Negreanu took the microphone and sketched in some more details.

A tournament was planned. But it wasn’t going to be just any old tournament. In about 13 months’ time — January 2019 — the PokerStars Players No Limit Hold’em Championship (or PSPC) would take place in The Bahamas. It would have a buy-in of $25,000, placing it higher than the vast majority of main events on the global poker calendar. But here was the most special detail of all: 300 players would get into the tournament for nothing.

Negreanu appeared in Prague as the PSPC was announced

These 300 would be holders of a so-called Platinum Pass, a sliver of metal about the size of a credit card, that would qualify them for a seat in the game, as well as a trip to the Bahamas and a hospitality package. These Platinum Pass holders didn’t necessarily need to be high rolling poker pros. In fact, it was hoped they wouldn’t be.

PokerStars was stumping up the $8 million in buy-ins in a bid to oversee a unique poker experience. The target was amateurs, enthusiasts, lucky qualifiers, contest winners, all having the chance to play for the highest stakes and against the best in the world.

“This is going to be an incredible experience for those who participate and everyone, no matter their skill level, has a chance to win a Platinum Pass,” Negreanu said. “It’s something to be truly excited about.”

Rafi Ashkenazi, then the Chief Executive Officer of The Stars Group, added in a press release: “We expect the PokerStars Players Championship will set the new global standard for live poker tournaments.”

One of the most common criticisms of major poker tournaments is that the corporate sponsors almost never add anything to the prize pool. It’s a valid complaint. Poker players put up all the money, alongside a fee to play, yet are often expected to follow rules laid down by the tournament sponsors to do media interviews, allow their names and photos to be published, that kind of thing. This is in stark contrast to sports such as golf or Formula 1, where the sponsors pay the prize money in return for their marketing demands, and the players are on a freeroll.

The PSPC was different. With PokerStars adding that $9 million to the prize pool, it was awash with extra value. And with the emphasis placed on recreational players, two further things became clear: firstly, any pro worth their salt would need to be in the field, attempting to plunder some of that extra value. That could make for a truly massive field. Secondly, as the whole thing played out, there was every chance we could be looking at at least one or two rags-to-riches, Moneymaker-style stories, as an amateur strikes gold.

For all these obvious reasons, a year of platinum hunting began that very moment.

A YEAR HUNTING PLATINUM

There and then in the EPT Prague tournament room, Romania’s Mihai Manole became the very first Platinum Pass winner. And then right away we had another one.

The grand idea behind the announcement of the PSPC on the bubble of the EPT Main Event was so that the first Platinum Pass could be handed, gratis, to the bubble boy. The idea was to give the cloud of main event elimination a silver — sorry, platinum — lining.

But it didn’t go precisely according to plan.

Manole gets his Platinum Pass

In an unlikely, if not exactly unprecedented, turn of events, two players were knocked out simultaneously on the bubble, Manole and Andrzej Siemieniak. That meant tournament organisers had to launch their contingency plan and play a quick hand of all-in poker, between the two bubble boys, where the winner would get the Platinum Pass. But the first hand ended in a chop pot (“The most anti-climactic hand in poker history, and I speak as someone who normally loves a chop pot,” said James Hartigan), and then the second did too.

However, this was where there was a major error. Negreanu, who was on announcer duty, didn’t notice that this second run-out resulted in a chop pot. Amid all the brouhaha, Negreanu declared Manole the winner, Siemieniak skulked away, and most of us thought that was that. Until, that is, the chop pot became apparent, which meant Siemieniak had suffered an injustice.

Brad Willis wrote a full oral history of this catastrophe, which bears re-reading. It was such a high-profile moment, messed up so spectacularly, that it took a whole army of very good folk to make it right again. And, of course, the only way to do that was to hand out two Platinum Passes, to both Manole and Siemieniak.

It was clearly an error, but nobody ever said we had to award two Platinum Passes that day. However, the spirit of benevolence underpinned the whole PSPC experience, and it started right there and then.


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Over the coming weeks and months, Platinum Passes rained like confetti across the poker landscape. The Italian pro Andrea Benelli won one in the Italian Poker Open last longer, for example. And Maria Konnikova managed to win the PCA National, while researching her book on how to learn poker. She immediately asked her publisher for a deadline extension.

An original Platinum Pass

In addition to these high profile champs, there were also already winners like Adrian Nica, who won the “micro” Winter Series Main Event on PokerStars, a tournament that cost $2.20 to enter. There were random draws at the PCA (one of which gave free entry to one of the best players in the world, David Peters), and Platinum Passes were won across the globe, in London, Sao Paolo, Macau and Sochi. Players like Shuize Cai won a pass in their first ever poker tournament, while James Chen and Aresniy Karmatskiy were playing their umpteenth.

This ratio of amateurs to pros sustained throughout the year, with contests on Poker In The Ears and EPT Live plucking first-timers from their listenership, while EPT Main Events gave a pass to their winners, some of whom were seasoned professionals.

Team Pros also got a chance to hand over a few passes. Chris Moneymaker launched an entire poker tour with his name on it, and offered passes to the victors from some huge tournament fields. At the same time Liv Boeree and Igor Kurganov asked their fans to crack some incredibly difficult brainteasers to be in with a chance of winning. Jen Shahade wanted someone to create a new game, and Lex Veldhuis wanted to reward some generosity.

McLaggan cracked the Blog cipher

Even PokerStars Blog had a pass to give away, for which we devised what we thought was an all but impenetrable cipher. A young Brit named Joshua McLaggan thought otherwise. He paused some late-night cramming for his university exams and cracked the code in about 25 minutes. “My only poker experience is playing online poker at the micro stakes,” McLaggan told us. That didn’t matter. He was off to The Bahamas.

Further winners came from the press corps, the Vlogger-sphere and a man who found a Platinum Pass under a Christmas tree (sort of).

All of them were treated as VIPs, with PokerStars dedicating two members of staff — Garry Gates (yes, that one) and Willie Elliot (his WSOP final table will come one day) — to look after them. In all, there were 320 Platinum Passes given out.

Yep, PokerStars took a promise to lay on the biggest promotion ever and made it even bigger. It meant that the stage was set for an incredible show in The Bahamas when 2019 got under way.

THE EVENT

There were huge expectations surrounding the PSPC, but somehow the actual event managed to surpass them.

The record-breaking field assembles

All the pre-tournament chatter had been about the field size: just how many players could find $25,000 to sit in a poker tournament, even one so stuffed with lower-ranking players. The answer to that came fairly quickly. When registration closed, there were 1,039 players (and no re-entries; this was a freezeout). That meant a total prize pool of close to $26.5 million, and a winner’s prize of $4.1 million, plus another $1 million added by PokerStars. All of the top six would become millionaires.

That made the PSPC the biggest tournament at that price point ever held, anywhere.

Although everybody wanted to win, of course, this was one event where for so many people, just being there represented a huge rush. At PokerStars Blog, we set about trying to meet all the players we’d been writing about for a year, and following their experiences playing among the pros.

At the start of things, the most established stars were shining brightest. Talal Shakerchi was the chip leader at the end of the first day, with Dan O’Brien one spot behind. Russia’s Andrei Kurov, who had won his entry through a Poker In The Ears podcast promotion, was up there too, however, as the field shrank to 750. Of course, plenty of dreams had to die, but at least most players went home with a good story. Remember that code-cracking micro-stakes player McLaggan, for example? He was knocked out by Patrik Antonius.

Of course, getting knocked out always hurts, but the extracurricular entertainment was top notch at the PSPC. Even as Platinum Pass winners departed the tournament, they were able to stay in the country and explore the Atlantis resort. They could eat, drink and be merry, all as part of their buy-in package. There was also a special treat when Norm Macdonald headlined a sensational night in the comedy club, rambling through some seemingly off-the-cuff poker-related anecdotes alongside his typical surreal flights of fancy.

The chaos as Leckey is eliminated

Back in the tournament room, a bruising Day 2 ended with only 207 players left and they were closing in on the money. The top 181 finishers were due for a payday, with the min-cash sitting at $25,450. If you’d bought in for the full $25K, this obviously wasn’t a huge profit, but this was a deliberate “money-back” move. So very many players in the field were looking at turning their Platinum Passes — beautiful, but with no intrinsic value — into some cold hard cash. It meant some nervy times as the bubble approached on Day 3, with the PokerStars Live cameras in attendance watching every move.

The bubble ended up taking an agonising 90 minutes to burst, with many players clinging on for dear life, while others made hay. The Grim Reaper finally decided to perch on the shoulder of Ireland’s Paul Leckey, and his pocket kings were downed by Tianle Wang’s aces. Leckey received a buy-in to the EPT Monte Carlo main event by way of consolation. But no fewer than 45 Platinum Pass winners were through the bubble and into the money, with the only question now being how much they could win.

The day played on, down to the tournament’s final 38. And among even those were nine players who had qualified through their Platinum Passes. They were guaranteed at least $86,400.

Rivera, a Platinum Pass winner, was placed second heading to the final

These included Jacqueline Burkhart, whose pass came through Maria Konnikova’s giveaway, as well as super high rollers such as Mikita Badziakouski, whose entry came as a bonus when he won a major event in Macau. There was also Michael Robionek, a German player who won a “Human Lie Detector” freeroll to play in the PSPC, and ended up knocking out Matthias Eibinger, among others, en route to the penultimate day of play.

There was also a certain man from Spain named Ramon Colillas. But more about him later.

Scott Baumstein led at the end of Day 3 as things were getting really exciting. And Baumstein also led at the end of Day 4 as the eight players who would sit at the final were confirmed. Colillas, yes, he was there. But there was also Marc Rivera of the Philippines ranked second in the counts. He too was on an incredible spin up after winning his Platinum Pass at APPT Manila.

PLATINUM STRIKES GOLD

It was already clear that whatever happened at the PSPC final table, Platinum Pass winners had turned this event into something spectacular. There was the record field size, the ginormous prize pool, and two freerollers now guaranteed at least high six figures as they took their seats at the final table.

However, the prospect of a Platinum Pass winner actually winning the event was just too amazing to even contemplate. But that’s exactly what came to pass.

Colillas made steady progress to the final

Ramon Colillas had done a very efficient job of flying under the radar. The 30-year-old former fitness trainer from Barcelona had won his Platinum Pass by winning a Spanish poker tour leader board, collecting points for high finishes in a series of small buy-in events across his home country. So he obviously had the chops. At the final, he continued to avoid most of the major early confrontations as Julien Martini came to the fore. Martini cracked Talal Shakerchi’s aces, and out-kicked Farad Jattin to get rid of two dangerous opponents.

Colillas’s kings then ended Marc Perrault’s day, and soon after, his pocket fives accounted for Jason Koonce. Martini knocked out Baumstein, and that left Rivera, Colillas and Martini for the big bucks: two Platinum Pass winners against the chip leader from France. (Click for all the blow by blow final table action, by the way.)

Rivera’s brilliant run came to an end in third. With a relatively small stack, he found an ace but it was dominated by similar in Martini’s hand. Even though his chance to take the title was over, Rivera won a life-changing $2.168 million.

And then Martini and Colillas set in for a dramatic heads-up duel. Amid a lot of to and fro, one incredible hand stood out. Martini flopped a flush with his 9♥6♥ on a board of A♥4♥Q♥. But after the turn and river brought the Q♦ and 5♦, Colillas had backed into a full house with his Q♣5♠. It marked a huge switch in momentum, shifted piles of chips to Colillas, and the game was over soon after.

Martini earned close to $3 million, but Colillas was the champion. Including the additional $1 million, he took $5.1 million, the most ever awarded in a PokerStars tournament.

THE CHAMPION

Colillas’s victory was everything all poker watchers would have hoped it would be. It was dramatic, sure, especially the enormous heads-up cooler against Martini that tilted the balance definitively in Colillas’s favour. But the winner also demonstrated heaps of talent, humility, and a sense of occasion.

“A lot of players were saying this was the most important tournament in history, so now it’s only about happiness and enjoying the moment,” he said.

Colillas enjoys the moment

Colillas joined Team PokerStars Pro soon after, and has continued to represent PokerStars ever since, including during a stellar WSOP this year. Colillas made one final table, and only narrowly missed the Main Event final, finishing 15th for another major score.

As for the PSPC, we are still awaiting its second running. The tournament was such a success that PokerStars quickly confirmed it would happen again, setting off another rush for the Platinum Passes. Covid-19 threw a spanner in the works, forcing a postponement, but we can be certain it will be rescheduled as soon as it’s safe.

In the meantime, we can look back on the greatest promotion PokerStars ever launched, which is almost certainly the greatest promotion in the whole game of poker.


MORE IN THIS SERIES:

2017 – The oral history of the Fintan and Spraggy stream
2016 – The poker community gives back
2015 – The rise of the global game
2014 – The art of the streak
2013 – Is this the best final table ever?
2012 – A look back at some of poker’s best (and worst) innovations
2011 – Isuldur1 and the nosebleed cash games
2010 – Poker as a TV and streaming spectacle
2009 – The live poker boom hits its highest point
2008 – Where future superstars cut their teeth
2007 – The changing face of the sponsored pro
2006 – How poker prize pools ballooned
2005 – Reporting on poker will never catch on…
2004 – The Year of the EPT
2003 – Chris Moneymaker wins WSOP, sparks ‘poker boom’
2002 – The year of WCOOP
2001 – Electronic poker before PokerStars

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